The Tualatin River

We’re only a hundred paddle strokes west of the 99W Bridge, not far from the 25,000-person city of Tualatin, but already the sound of tires rolling across concrete is fading. En route to wine country, I’d often glanced down at the Tualatin River from my car window, but this is my first time on the water itself. Already the experience is showing me that Washington County is not merely an agricultural region marred in parts by suburban sprawl.

Here the river is wide and meandering, bordered on both sides by tall trees whose canopies shade a thick understory. It’s a fine backdrop for the kingfishers flitting about. “This really is what the river should look like,” says Sue Marshall, who served as the executive director of the nonprofit water conservation group Tualatin Riverkeepers from 2000 to 2006, and who remains an avid volunteer. Save for a few twigs and leaves, the water’s surface is glassy, and the hot summer air is just as still. It isn’t hard to imagine a child clinging to the end of a rope swing suddenly appearing from the woods and landing near the bow of my kayak with a cannonball kersplash.

A few decades ago, that might well have happened, Marshall tells me as we pass the former location of Roamer’s Rest, a recreational spot on the banks where, in the 1950s, families would gather for picnics and kids would careen down slides into the water. But after articles about the polluted water began appearing in the Oregon Journal in the mid-1950s, the Tualatin became known as the most polluted river in Oregon. When the state health department posted advisories warning people against swimming in the river, it didn’t seem like such a fine place to cool off anymore.

The reasons for the problems were numerous. State permits had allowed area farmers to siphon off too much water, leaving the river stagnant and shallow during summer months, which made it inhospitable to aquatic life. (“They darn near sucked it dry,” Marshall says.) Even worse, as the population of Washington County increased, so did the volume of human waste, and the Tualatin and its tributaries became the dumping spot for some two dozen sewage-treatment plants (where not much “treatment” occurred).

“Some seniors have told me stories of coming home with infections after swimming in the river,” Marshall says. It may sound a bit uncharitable, but there’s no getting around the truth. The Tualatin had become a bit of a cesspool. There were reports of platoons of dead fish clustered along the banks.

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But if the river has a permanent place in the history of how Oregon mucked up its waterways, it’s also a testament to how a river can be redeemed again. Thanks to a local bond measure in 1970, those treatment plants were consolidated into a few facilities, all of which were outfitted with state-of-the-art sewage-treatment controls. And after the Portland-based Northwest Environmental Defense Center filed a lawsuit against the EPA in 1986, compelling the agency to enforce the 1972 Clean Water Act on the Tualatin, the river became the country’s first to receive what are called Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) standards. In spite of the wonky name, TMDLs are an essential part of water regulation. They set the maximum amount of particular pollutants a body of water can contain to meet the standards of the Clean Water Act; today they’ve been applied to some 20,000 bodies of water.

The results of these improvements, among other cleanup efforts, are clear. Today the Tualatin meets nearly all of its TMDL standards (though the river is still too warm, which can inhibit fish breeding patterns), and people are returning to the river for recreation once again.

When I met Marshall at Tualatin Riverkeepers’ offices, the first thing she handed me was a list of potential launch sites for the Tualatin River Water Trail, the 35-mile paddling route the group has been developing since 1995. Like many other water-conservation groups, Tualatin Riverkeepers has realized that one of the best ways to protect rivers is by getting people back out on them.

After the Tualatin’s reputation was sullied, “people turned their backs on it,” says Marshall, who occasionally swims in the river with her family (though not after a heavy rain, when large volumes of storm water and agricultural runoff flow in). The water trail is one way to bring people back to its shores. “Unless people feel a connection and experience their waterways, there’s less of a stake in cleaning them up.”